At the last Monastic Immersion Weekend, a group of about eighteen of us sat down to consider the challenge of our work from the perspective of prayer.
We admittedly live in a society that is very interested in spirituality; as a result people who are also committed a religion are usually well versed in that particular tradition of prayer. I meet many people who pray, set aside time for prayer and deepen their commitment to prayer. To phrase it poorly, prayer tends not to be the problem but the impact of work on our prayer can seem to be the problem.
When we look at the great contemplative traditions, however, we may wonder what is wrong. I remember reading as a kid those books written for adolescents about European history. The culture of the middle ages, in such books, was noteworthy in its craftsmen who would lavish as much care on the back of a statue, which would never be seen because it was set in a niche, as much as the visible side. “…but God would see it,” the moralizing text would conclude. The message I took away was that such skilled handiwork could be a form of devotion, a notion re-enforced by the care my own dad would take in the joining of a radiator cover he was building. Or the Sufi tradition was developed by masters who were great craftsmen–in textiles, metal-work, plaster and stucco, wood, paper making. The handcraftsmanship was part of the spiritual discipline. The Zen Master teaches, “Become what you are doing,” suggesting an engagement in the task as centering as a ballerina’s concentration on the choreography that reaches beyond itself to express flights of genius. In a more homely vein, the Shakers, whose work seemed endless, were motivated by the aphorism, “Hands to work and hearts to God.”
In black-and-white these words are all very inspiring and promise to be motivating. We may hope that they can unlock the gates of our routine and boredom to reveal new horizons of possibility. But what relation so they have to the work we actually perform?
The medieval sculptor, who had no wrist watch or time card, whose work was uninterrupted by text messages or cell phone calls, what can he still say to us? The Shaker joiner, who’d never travel further than a few miles from his isolated farm community, who was up with the chickens before dawn and back in bed after sunset. There were no Youtube, no video games, rarely even books to distract him; how do his diversions compare to ours? In any sense, could our hours at a computer compare with a Sufi craftsman setting minute tiles into zelliges mosaic? When he finishes his job, a geometric marvel of intricacy and color witnessed to his labor. When I log off, is there anything memorable even in cyberspace? And, from a Zen perspective, would I want to become my fingers tapping away at a keyboard or filing yet another form?
In a workplace dominated by deadlines and cutbacks, can we only expect overwork and stress? Is attention to detail only an obsessive compulsion? Is concentration (think of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock) only a form of sociopathic behavior? Has work become the obligation, the function (and nothing more) of earning a living in a consumer society? Has the disconnect between our technological work and the hand work of our ancestors become too broad for us to draw any help from our spiritual traditions? Is the desire to set work in relation to prayer only some romantic fantasy? Is the way we work today, in fact, devouring our capacity for prayer?
To be continued